“What did you just say?” the Professor demanded, each syllable metered out with venom and laden with contempt.
I took a moment to gather my senses. Here I was, standing in the doorway of an outside toilet, next to some lunatic who seemed to think that he was a cross between Albert Einstein and Buck Rogers, staring at a landscape that I could have sworn was not there when I had first walked in. It was eerie, oddly threatening and I got the distinct impression that it was not at all a nice place to be. I concluded that it made no sense at all, and I suspected that I was going to have some trouble coming to terms with that.
“All I said was - “ I began uncertainly, but the old man did not allow my explanation to proceed.
“Swansea!” Professor Mendes blustered, and to my startled ears it sounded like a pistol crack. He dug his heel into my foot with thinly disguised vindictiveness.
“Swansea!” he repeated as I writhed in pain. “Really! I transport you halfway across the galaxy, deliver you into this strange and alien landscape, and you have the audacity to claim that we’ve landed in Swansea. My dear Mr Dickinson, you are the most cynical young twat I have ever had the misfortune to encounter.” With that, he gave his heel a final toe-crunching twist, then stepped out into the open.
“The name’s Dickson,” I called after him, uselessly. “Not Dickinson.” Then I felt Janet draw near, replacing the Professor at my side. Instinctively I flinched. Hadn’t I suffered enough?
“It’s not the most hospitable place, is it?” she murmured as she stared through the open doorway, utterly oblivious to my discomfort. “All this devastation, this empty bleakness. It’s all so cold, so dead - as if it remembers some terrible atrocity that was once enacted here.”
I gave her a harsh stare as she scratched her nose with the hook on her left arm. “Great,” I said, my words bristling with sarcasm. “Cheer me up, why don’t you! Can’t you just put a sock in it, you insensitive tart.” At this point she started to cry, but I was past caring. She followed the Professor outside, and then it was Cathy’s turn to harass me.
“I’ve got a special badge for knot tying,” she said apropos of nothing, but with evident pride. Then she too went out. Painfully I hobbled after them.
The Professor had wasted no time in surveying our new surroundings and by now he was crouched on the ground, examining a small shrivelled looking plant. “Fascinating, fascinating,” he muttered. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I peered over his shoulder at the wilted shrub and couldn’t for the life of me see what he found so special about it. After all, it was only a dead plant. I had a window box full of them at home and I said as much, but he just growled at me in reply.
“What is it Father?” Cathy said as she came over to join us. “What have you found?”
“He’s found a dead plant,” I said helpfully, but they both ignored me.
“It’s an extremely unusual species of ivy,” the Professor said as he snipped a portion of partially-desiccated leaf between his thumb and forefinger then stood up and held it up towards the light. “I’ve seen something very similar to it on Earth, but only in fossils.”
“Ah!” I felt bound to comment. “Then it’s obviously deader than I thought.”
They continued to disregard my interjections. “It really is most intriguing,” the Professor continued. “What we see here is a pattern of evolution that mirrors development on Earth. Except here this particular plant has managed to escape extinction. Remarkable.”
“Remarkable,” I mumbled to myself. I had followed the Professor’s lecture up to a point, but by now it had become too tedious for me. I twisted around to Janet. “The old boy’s found a dead plant,” I informed her. “He seems to think it’s interesting.”
Janet obviously seemed to think it was interesting too. She trotted over to the Professor and the three of them stared at it with the same sort of disbelief and wonder that would be engendered by the sight of the Pope juggling live piranhas whilst balancing on a flaming tightrope.
I grabbed her roughly by the elbow and pulled her aside. “Oh pull yourself together, woman!” I hissed. “You really do think we’re on some alien planet, don’t you?”
“Well, don’t you?” Janet replied. “Just look around you.”
I shrugged. “I’m pretty sure we’re somewhere in Wales,” I said. I looked around and pointed at the distant horizon. “If we head in that direction we should hit the M4.”
Janet seemed quite shocked at my casual assertion. “But the Podulator?” she said. “The journey? I mean, how do you imagine we got here? The Professor must be telling the truth!”
“Oh I don’t doubt that it’s all very clever,” I admitted. “But it’s a trick, that’s all. It’s all done with mirrors, or something. Or maybe we were drugged? Whatever - the point is, you can’t seriously believe that this...this...” I glanced over at the Professor and suddenly the words came easily enough. “...this irritating little freak is really capable of transporting us to the other side of the universe in a souped-up outhouse?”
“Well...” She began. Anybody who begins a sentence with a ‘well’ like that is clearly in need of further convincing.
“I’ll tell you exactly what has happened,” I said firmly. “This Professor has drugged us both, then while the two of us were insensible, he and his monkey-faced daughter loaded us into the back of van and drove us out here into the middle of nowhere.”
“Along with the Cosmic Podulator?” Janet said, indicating the toilet behind us. I was going to reply, but suddenly she burst out with, “Oh Mr Dickson! Why can’t you accept what’s really happening?” I took a step back out of regard for my own safety. This Janet person was turning out to be something of a loose cannon. “Isn’t it obvious that this really is an alien planet?”
“It’s no good, Janet my dear,” the Professor interjected upon overhearing her outburst. “This intolerable young man’s mind is closed to the possibility.” He seemed to be staring over my shoulder. Something had obviously caught his eye and his face brightened. “But perhaps we may yet be able to convince him. Turn around slowly. Don’t make a noise. Tell me what you see.”
Both Janet and I turned around slowly. Neither of us made a noise. We saw sod all, and I was not afraid to say so.
The Professor was annoyed. “There!” he insisted. “Nestling in those shrubs beside the Podulator. Do you see it? Now, how do you explain that, Mr Dickens?”
“Dickson,” I corrected him absently as I stared at the spot Professor Mendes indicated. There was only really one thing that he could possibly be pointing at. “It’s a crisp packet,” I said.
“What?” the Professor replied.
“A crisp packet,” I repeated. “An empty crisp packet, that’s all. I can’t see why you’re making such a fuss about it.”
“Nonsense!” replied the Professor, sounding most offended. “It’s clearly an example of alien fauna; some sort of rodent that can be found nowhere on Earth,” he claimed. “I have already observed several more foraging in a clump of grass over in that direction. Evidently, these animals flourish on this part of the planet.”
I stared more closely at the disputed object. “A rodent?” I said.
“Most certainly,” the Professor replied smugly.
“I see,” I said, nodding slowly. “So why does it say ‘cheese and onion’ on it?”
“Cheese and...” The Professor broke off. He cautiously approached his ‘rodent’, then pulled out a pair of half-moon spectacles, perched them on his nose and bent to examine it. I heard him sigh gently. Then he straightened up and came back to join us.
“You’re imagining things,” he said to me.
“No, I’m not,” I replied. “You can see it as clear as day!”
The Professor shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “What you can see are just random markings. We are definitely looking at alien animal life. And a most fascinating creature it appears to be too. I wish I could capture one so that I could add it to my collection.”
His collection? Clearly, in the Professor’s little fantasy world, the simplest everyday objects could be misinterpreted as something marvellous and strange. I wondered what other items of extraneous jetsam might comprise his private zoo. Did he, I pondered, have a room somewhere stacked high with old drink cans, newspapers and discarded condoms, all carefully labelled and lovingly watered every day?
I decided that the only decent thing to do would be to expose this fiction. I walked over to the shrub, picked up the crisp packet and held it up for all to see. “See,” I said triumphantly. “Cheese and onion.”
“No it isn’t,” Cathy suddenly said.
I starred daggers at her. “I beg your pardon?” I said.
“It doesn’t say cheese and onion,” said Cathy. “It says cheese and mushroom.”
“Ha ha!” roared the Professor victoriously. “Cheese and mushroom - a combination which is unknown on Earth. Well, that proves that we’re on another planet doesn’t it?” And with that he wandered off, giggling to himself.
I lifted up the empty packet to my face. It did indeed say ‘cheese and mushroom’. I’d never heard of cheese and mushroom crisps before, but that wasn’t to say that they didn’t exist. I mean, there was no reason why cheese and mushroom crisps couldn’t exist, was there? The two flavours didn’t explode on contact, did they? Perhaps they did. Perhaps crisp manufacturers had been secretly attempting to combine them for years, but had never proved able. And perhaps we now found ourselves on an alien world in a distant galaxy, where alien crisp technologists had finally succeeded where their Earth counterparts had failed, and had managed to bond the two entirely incompatible flavours.
I looked at the crisp packet more closely. Was this really incontrovertible confirmation of the Professor’s theory? I dropped it again. I wasn’t sure about all this. I really didn’t want the Professor to be right, but I thought I’d better try and keep my doubts to myself for the time being, just in case I turned out to be wrong.
For the next couple of hours I sat in the dust with my back against the cold, damp wall of the Podulator. The others accused me of sulking, but the truth of the matter was that this strange place unnerved me and I felt more at ease whilst I was in contact with the bricks and mortar of the Professor’s extraordinary toilet. It was as if it somehow connected me with home.
The others had no such qualms. Cathy and Janet went off exploring, although they promised Professor Mendes that they would not stray from earshot. The Professor, meanwhile, contented himself with gathering up various specimens from the immediate vicinity of the Podulator. I watched him for a while as he used a pair of tweezers to carefully select dead leaves, bits of rock and discarded litter and post them into little plastic bags.
After a while the sky began to darken. It was an odd sort of sky - scattered with eerie purple clouds, shot through with veins of yellow and green. Then the moon rose above the horizon. Shortly afterwards, a second moon presented itself, delivering another blow to my ‘Welsh’ theory. Did they have two moons in Wales? Probably not. I tried not to look at it in the hope that it would go away.
Just as darkness was beginning to fall in earnest, Janet and Cathy returned from their little jaunt. The Professor was keen to learn what they had discovered.
“Oh well!” a breathless Cathy began excitedly. “First we went in that direction,” she said, pointing wildly, “and we found some trees and stuff. Then we tried over in that direction there.” Her arm swung around. “And we found some trees and stuff. But then we tried over there.” She pointed behind me. “And we found a hotel.”
I pricked up my ears. “A hotel?” I asked, hopeful for any indication of normality.
“No, not really,” she said, dashing my dreams. “We just found some more trees and stuff.” She turned to the Professor. “What about you, Father?” she asked. “What have you discovered?”
“Oh, just trees and stuff,” Professor Mendes replied. “From my brief analysis of various soil samples and bits of old twigs, I would guess that some great catastrophe once happened here. Probably something nuclear.”
Janet nodded knowingly. “Ah yes, nuclear,” she said ominously, and she sniffed the air. “You can smell it.”
“I would say that only the hardiest of species would be able to survive here for any length of time now,” Professor Mendes posited. “Which, I’m afraid, doesn’t include us. It’s high time we were leaving, so back into the Podulator everybody.”
If there had ever been a time when I had felt happier to be squeezing into a smelly toilet with three complete strangers, then I’m afraid it escaped my memory. Actually, there was one night at a club in Bradford that springs to mind, but my reasons and motives on that occasion were entirely different.
I was the last in, pulling the door shut behind me. It was gloomy, stuffy, extremely cramped and the heady smell of air freshener did little to disguise that familiar, ever-present stench common to toilets everywhere. Nevertheless, I felt relieved that we were leaving.
“Everybody ready?” the Professor called out. “Okay then, hold tight!” He reached out and pulled the chain. There was a gushing noise, a gurgle, a weak sounding ‘pop’ and then... nothing. No shuddering, no lurching. No tumultuous wind or tempestuous thunderclaps. Just silence.
The Professor cleared his throat. “Yes, sorry about that,” he said. “Let’s give it another go.”
He pulled the chain again - purposefully, definitely and somehow more emphatically. In short, he gave the chain no cause to doubt that it had been pulled. Nevertheless, the action did not produce the required result. This time the only response was a slight ‘putt-putt-putt’, the distant sound of a wispy pneumatic fart and a slight fall of dust from above my head.
“What is it Father?” Cathy said. “What’s the problem?”
Professor Mendes’ face was grave. Without replying, he stepped up onto the toilet bowl and balanced there as he lifted the lid of the cistern and peered inside. When he stepped down again, his expression had shifted from grave to crestfallen.
“What is it?” Janet asked.
“It’s the ballcock,” the Professor said. “It’s had it, I’m afraid.”
“Well surely that’s no problem?” I said anxiously. “It’s just a question of fitting a new ballcock, then we can be on our way.”
“Oh yes,” the Professor agreed. “A new ballcock would do it, no doubt about that. The only problem is, we don’t carry a spare.” He paused to let us consider this news, and if the implications hadn’t already sunk in, he underlined them for us.
“I’m very much afraid,” he said with a voice of pure steel, “that without a new ballcock we are marooned on this planet... Forever!”